Posts Tagged ‘Hassan Blasim’
I interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.
Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.
Why do you write?
To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.
If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.
Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.
Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.
I wrote this account of the Erbil Literature Festival in early 2011, as Assad was bringing war to Syria, before the PYD militias took over Syria’s Kurdish areas, long before Mosul fell to Daesh. Since then there’s been a revolution in Syrian culture, and a further expansion of Iraqi literature. Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, mentioned here, last year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as ‘the Arab Booker’.
5th May 2011
It was an annoying journey out: a thirty-mile lift to the train station, then a train, a bus, a plane, a transit zone, a plane; unfitting and refitting my belt, tired and prickle-skinned among the glassy hustling public, and the jarring mesh of duty-free odours, and the funneling tunneling lights. My night in Vienna, old Austro-Hungaria, was spent in a very contemporary airport hotel. The windows were sealed by regulation. I lay on the bed and watched TV – all I ever do in anonymous, upmarket hotels – on pillows too bulky, sheets too sterile. I watched too much Arabic Jazeera, slow eyes chasing the script on the news bar, about the killing in Syria, in Homs and in Dara‘a. I slid to sleep to the hiss of airconditioning.
Inaam Kachachi is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent novel, available in English too, is “The American Granddaughter”, which concerns a young Iraqi-American woman who ‘returns’ to Iraq as a translator with the American military.
When Inaam returns home these days she finds that Baghdad, the cradle of her early life, has become a foreign city. Last time she was there an American soldier assumed she was the foreigner because she was dressed only in T-shirt and trousers, revealing her light skin, startling orange hair and (by her own description) her plumpness. ‘When he passed by me he said “Hi Ma’am!” I replied in English,’ (she puts on a parodic American growl) – ‘“Fuck you, I’m Iraqi!”’
Once she mentions her plumpness I notice it. She’s elegant and swish with it too. Her size seems to be an outward manifestation of powerful inner warmth, as if her raging humour requires great space to rush about in. We’d met before, half a year earlier in Berlin, and we wave to each other as she comes through the Vienna airport gate.
So: eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey. And south over snow-caked mountains towards the flatlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. I think I glimpse the glistening Tigris from my port hole. On the other side of the river is Mosul, where Inaam’s family originates (and, so rumour has it – much more distantly – mine too), and near Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, where Ashurbanipal’s library was buried and dug up, and with it the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of the flood myth, the omens and divinations of the ancient world. I experience a frisson of firm location: my first time in Iraq, which is the homeland of all writers, the birthplace of literature, the Babel-land of stories. This is where human beings first discovered writing.
The airport is contemporary, spacious and airy. Our group of writers is processed through passport control and into a minibus, green fields and long grass on either side; after a kilometre we stop at a lonely concrete hut where our bags are scanned again. We change buses here, for security’s sake.
And into the city. It’s called Hawler in Kurdish, Erbil in Arabic, Arbaa-ilu (Four Gods) in Akkadian, and Urbilum (The Upper City) in Sumerian. It’s the fourth largest city in Iraq, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Its population is well over a million, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s spacious like the airport, low rise, and most of it is in very good shape.
Our hotel compound is surrounded by blast walls. The public side of the walls is painted with murals – prisoners breaking through bars, the Pepsi logo, mountains and flowers. Our bags are searched and scanned at the entrance to the compound and again in the foyer of the hotel.
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)
Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.
The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.
Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion. Read the rest of this entry »
This was published at the Guardian.
The Arab world is undergoing seismic transformations, groping its way towards new, as yet unknown forms, throwing up works of art as well as bombs in the process. In the face of vast complexity, however, and in a time of war, our media’s first response is to dumb down.
If the news media simplifies, literature, by offering social and psychological context, broadens and diversifies our understanding of the region, and particularly literature written by Arabs. (When Martin Amis or John Updike write about Arabs, they are of course writing about themselves, their own ideas of how Arabs tick.) The reading public seems to know this. Recent years have seen an increasing demand for Arabic writing in English translation, though Europe still translates far more.
So the publication of “Beirut 39” – 39 extracts by Arab writers under 40 – is a timely and worthwhile initiative. The 39 are winners of a contest organised by Banipal magazine and the Hay Festival of Literature, and the book’s name honours UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2009. “Beirut 39” contains short stories, novel extracts and a few poems, often brimming with exuberant confidence and sparkling with innovation. The quality of translation ranges from acceptable to excellent.
How can imagination respond to a situation like Iraq’s, in which truth is so blatantly stranger and more horrifying than the darkest fiction? Perhaps by simply recording real stories, then sometimes allowing reality to slip a little further in the direction it’s already chosen.
“The important thing is to observe at length, like someone contemplating committing suicide from a balcony. The other important thing is to have an imagination which is not melodramatic but malicious and extremely serious, and to have an ascetic spirit that is close to death.”
Except this isn’t a formulation but a voice within a story. In another story there is a man who throws himself from a balcony – a man who clears blood and debris in the aftermath of explosions, then migrates to Holland, renames himself Carlos Fuentes, becomes a Hirsi Ali figure, more Dutch than the Dutch, and suffers nightmares. There’s a man who dreams a number which foretells not a lottery ticket but .. something else. I give away too much.
Blasim slips between first and third person narration, between realism and hyper-realism, fairytale and dream. Better than slip, he weaves, surefooted. The writing is tight, intelligent, urgent. It bears traces of Gogol and Edgar Allen Poe, plus ugly hints of the Brothers Grimm. It’s Gothic but it dispenses with the Gothic mode’s flagged sentiment. Too tough and wise for that.
There is symbolism. There are phantasmagoric tales of people-smuggling, of corpses displayed as public art, of cannibalism. But none of it is fantasy. All of it directly addresses the fate of people tortured by destruction and fire.